The Words of a Massachusetts Ambulance Driver

Sometimes figuring out a subject for the blog is surprisingly challenging. I like to look at what I’ve done lately, but a lot of that amounts to committee work, organizing incoming materials, and cleaning up data for the catalog and archival management software. And the end of the semester/year is my usual “catch up” time to dig through the piles in my office, problem solve, and return to some on-going projects. Interesting for me, but not “blog” interesting, to be sure–trust me! The most recent collection I processed is the topic of a relatively recent post on “The Sherwood Anderson Odyssey” (if you’re interested in that topic, the finding aid is available online), so there’s no need to re-hash that subject just yet. After a bit of digging through the memory banks, I thought it might be fun to revisit a manuscript collection we acquired in three parts back in 2011: the William Leonard Papers, 1864-1865 (Ms2011-106).

ms2011-106_leonard_diary_tp
Inside cover of Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary

William Leonard was born about 1843 in Massachusetts, as were his two sisters, Leonora and Roselia. In his letters, he often mentions Leonora, who he calls “Nora.” He was living with his family in Great Barrington when he was drafted into service in July 1863, supposedly for a three-year term with Company F, 16th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. The following year, however, the 16th Regiment mustered out and along with the remaining veterans, Leonard was transferred to the 11th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry.

ms2011-106_leonard_letter_march151865
Page from Leonard’s March 15, 1865 letter to his mother, in which he writes, “You must keep up good courage + not get the blues for we are going to whip them out this Summer. we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. [Ulysses S. Grant] Sheridan [Philip Henry Sheridan] & Sherman [William Tecumseh Sherman] are giveing them fits. I have seen Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] & Mede [George Meade] a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go Soldiering”
The collection includes the 1864-1865 diary of Leonard, along with 35 letters written to his both is parents or specifically to his mother during the same time. His letters indicate that by August 1864 and through Lee’s surrender in April 1865, he served as an ambulance driver, shuttling the wounded from battlefield to hospital, primarily around the Petersburg area.

ms2011-106_leonard_letter_june151864
The earliest of Leonard’s letters in the collection, dated June 15, 1864. He writes about, among other things, the lack of food, stating, “most of the boys are out of rations again but we are going to draw this morning. I have a few hard tack + Coffe + Sugar yet. they had ought to give us rations for the nights to for they keep us up so much.”

While waiting to muster out in 1865, he was stationed around Washington, DC, where he continued to serve in a driver capacity, often civilians in and around the city. He continually reassures his mother not to worry about it and passes along war news, though he had a distinct lack of interest in the soldier’s life, writing, “we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. Sheridan & Sherman are giving them fits. I have seen Grant & Mede a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go soldiering”

ms2011-106_leonard_diary_apr251865
Pages from Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary, noting “Apr 25 Moving Camp and Washing Ambulances. Fireing a cannon every half hour all day. 13 guns this morning + 32 at night for the death of abram Lincoln President of the U.S. who was shot by a man by the name of Booth”

In spite of his medical association during the war, he does not hesitate to share his opinions on what he sees around him. In a May 1865 letter, he wrote that “The Doctors here dont have any thing fit to give any one and the bigest of them dont know how to doctor a hen anyway. They take the wounded men legs and arms off half the time. when there is no need of it, do it practice there has been a number of times I have heard of that…The Doct of the Regt was a clerk in an apothecary shop…” and the following month, detailing the sight of unburied dead men and horses on the battlefield.

After the war, Leonard returned to Massachusetts. He worked in a local woolen mill and later purchased and ran a plumbing and steam-fitting business. In June 1886, he married Hattie Goodsell (b. 1862). They had at least one daughter (Nellie, b. 1897).  It is unknown when Leonard died, but he does appear on the 1910 census and not on the 1920. Both Hattie and Nellie were boarding with another family in 1920, suggesting William died in the interim. Nellie later married Courtland Sparks and they had a daughter.

Since its acquisition, Leonard’s diary and letters have all be digitized. They are available on our digital platform. The images also include transcripts, which are searchable, in case you want to dig around and see what he talks about most! You can also see the finding aid for the collection online. And, of course, you can always visit us and see Williams’ words in person.

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Benjamin M. Peck’s Civil War Pocket Diaries

Front cover of Benjamin Peck's 1864 pocket diary.
Front cover of Benjamin Peck’s 1864 pocket diary.

To day was spent in taking positions and [feeling?] of enemy

it was soon asertained that the enemy were falling back

troops were immediately started in pursuit.

We were rear guard and held the works in front during the after noon and night.

This was Captain Benjamin M. Peck’s entry in his pocket diary on Saturday May 7, 1864. Accessioned earlier this year, Peck’s 1864 & 1865 pocket diaries make up one of our newest Civil War collections. Digital scans and transcriptions of each diary are available at VT Special Collections Online. The transcriptions for each entry are transcribed as entered into the diary by Benjamin Peck. All original spelling, punctuation, and grammar are maintained in the line-by-line text found under each image.  Brackets and question marks represent areas where the entries are unclear. One prominent example which appears repeatedly in both diaries is, S? This is presumably a nickname for his wife Sarah, but the style and punctuation changes from entry to entry.

Benjamin Peck's nickname for his wife Sarah Peck.
Benjamin Peck’s nickname for his wife Sarah Peck as it appears in the diaries.

Benjamin M Peck was born on October 5, 1838, in Smithfield, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. He married Sarah H. Watkins on April 9, 1863 and after the war the couple would have two children. Their son, Guy W. Peck, was born in 1867, followed by a daughter, Mary A. Peck in 1870. Benjamin entered the legal profession and received his license to practice law before entering the Army. After the war he returned home to Towanda, PA and opened his law office. In 1872 he was elected prothonotary of the local court and served six years.  Then, in 1890, he served as President Judge of the 13th Judicial District of Pennsylvania. Benjamin died on September 9, 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Towanda, PA.

Peck’s military service began in August of 1862 when he enlisted in the Union Army as part of Company “B” of the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry Regiment as a 1st Sergeant. Early on he helped recruit new members for the regiment. On December 10, 1862 he was promoted to the rank of Full 2nd Lieutenant, and then promoted to Full Captain on December 5, 1863. During the Battle of Chancellorsville Lieutenant Peck was wounded in the neck and shoulder by a cannon shot on May 3, 1863. He returned to his unit, after a two month absence, fully recovered from his injuries and was mustered out of the service on May 28, 1865 in Washington, D.C.

The 1864 leather bound, preprinted diary contains two daily entries per page with cash accounts and notes sections in the back of the diary. In 1864 Benjamin M. Peck was the Captain of Company B in the 141st Regiment PA Volunteers. Due to absences, injuries, and illness of other officers he was placed in command of the regiment before being assigned to lead the 1st United States Sharp Shooters. Brigadier General Byron R. Pierce saw fit to place him in charge of the three companies of sharpshooters and he remained in this position until the end of the war. Peck describes battles, skirmishes, picket lines, commands, and other military assignments and engagements in great detail. He notes the various marches and travel routes of his company and records his travels between the Virginia front and his home in Towanda, PA. As part of the Army of the Potomac, Peck recounts the regiment’s campaign in Virginia and the Siege of Petersburg. He lists his men who were wounded or killed in battle, describes court martial proceedings, and even gives an account of the execution of a Union soldier for desertion. Following the 1864 presidential election he enumerates each candidate’s results within the division, which Lincoln won convincingly.

 

Peck's 1865 Pocket Diary
Peck’s 1865 Pocket Diary

The 1865 leather bound, preprinted, pocket diary contains one entry per day with cash accounts and notes listed in the back of the book. This diary continues with the 141st PA Volunteers camped outside of Petersburg in their winter quarters and continues through the end of the war and Peck’s return home. He recounts the fall of Petersburg, the Union pursuit of Lee’s Army of Virginia across the state, and Lee’s ultimate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Peck was assigned to preside over several court martial proceedings and gives details regarding these proceedings and punishments, which include a botched execution of a Union soldier. As in the first diary, Peck provides an account of the daily movement of Union troops and supplies. He gives detailed lists of captured soldiers and artillery, as well as Union wounded and casualty records. As the war nears its conclusion Peck was in charge of mustering out soldiers and kept thorough records of the process. In one of his most moving and emotional entries he recounts receiving the news of Presidents Lincoln’s assassination and describes the mood of the men upon hearing the President died. The entries end in July of 1865 with Peck practicing law in his home town of Towanda, PA.

We hope to have a timeline of date and cities Benjamin Peck traveled through during the war available soon at VT Special Collections Online. Until then, if you’d like to learn more about our Civil War collections or any of our other resources please visit us either online or in person!

Battlefield Diary 1862: Lieutenant William W. Barnett . . . or is it? “Who?” is only the beginning!

Barnett Diary Spine and PagesThe diary arrived in a handsome case that clearly identifies the contents as the work of Lieutenant William W. Barnett. A legible note in the front of the diary tells us that Barnett served in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. Records indicate, however, that Barnett mustered in with the 8th as a private in Company A on 15 May 1861 and was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate on 20 March 1863, also as a private! Who is our lieutenant?

The records do show a William H. Barnett of the 8th PRVC, Company A,  whose name was sometime recorded as William W. Barnett. There is another William W. Barnett, also serving in the same regiment and company, but with a different enlistment record than man discharged in March 1863, a record that is also contradicted by events recorded in the diary. A history of the 8th reports that this regiment consisted of men from Armstrong Co. in western Pennsylvania. The 1860 census for that county lists at least three William or W. H. Barnetts ranging in age from 19 to 21. Who is William Barnett?

Once you know what you might be looking for, the clues in the diary itself are easier to spot. On 15 September, Barnett writes, “This day is my birthday and I am twenty one years old and in the hospital.” This suggests our Barnett would be 19 in June 1860, the time of the census. He writes often in the diary that Henry has come to visit, and mentions an uncle Hezekiah Wood. William Barnett of Armstrong Co., son of Alexander and Hannah Barnett, is 19 in 1860, has a 21 year-old brother named Henry B., and a youngest brother named Hezekiah. Henry B. Barnett served in the 9th PRVC, a regiment that moved throughout 1862 in tandem with the 8th. William’s post office, as listed on the census, is Freeport. In faint writing on one of the last pages of the diary is written, “My mother Mrs Hannah Barnett resides in Freeport Armstrong County Penna.” We have a winner.

But what of Lieutenant Barnett? It turns out that our Barnett re-enlisted in August 1864 in the newly formed 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. Though entering as a private, he was promoted at least twice, finally to the rank of lieutenant on 19 January 1865. At war’s end, he returned to Pittsburgh and mustered out with his battery on 30 June 1865.

The task of identifying the diary’s writer is only the beginning. The diary itself is the treasure beyond! More about this in an upcoming post!!